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Try, try again: Senate 'Gang of Six' hatching plan on US debt reduction

Congress punted last year on a plan for major US deficit and debt reduction. But the bipartisan 'Gang of Six' senators is back at it, crafting a blueprint they say will be ready for consideration even before Election 2012.

By Staff writer / March 2, 2012



Washington

Even with Congress at a nadir of bitter partisanship, the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who came together last year to try to devise a way to strike $4 trillion out of federal spending in the coming decade, is still quietly at work.

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The group expects to have a debt-slashing plan of the $4 trillion variety ready well before the November election, in the event that spillover from Europe’s financial strains or changes in the Republican presidential race present an opportune moment to present it for consideration.

Many pundits, not to mention members of Congress, pooh-pooh the idea that such a sweeping legislative achievement can be achieved during a tightly contested election and by a thoroughly divided Congress. But what the "gang" does have going for it is a need, perceived by many lawmakers, for Congress to produce something substantive to take home to constituents before the November election.

“This debt debacle has been a proxy for whether our institutions work,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, one of the Gang of Six, this week. “We need to believe again that our governing institutions are up to putting country ahead of party. This is the issue that I think can make that happen.” 

Why now?

The conventional wisdom is that the Senate, paralyzed by polarization and election-year politics, will be a vortex from which no legislation can escape until the November elections. Then, with the election outcome in the rearview mirror, Congress will have direction to move on a thicket of tough issues, which Senator Warner laid out Thursday during a talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

First up would be the expiring Bush tax cuts (worth $5 trillion over 10 years) and the payroll tax holiday (about $100 billion per year). Capital gains and dividend tax rates will also rise if Congress doesn't act. Then, lawmakers must come to terms with the budget-slashing “sequester” – which would hit both the defense budget and discretionary programs to the tune of $1.2 trillion over 10 years – agreed to as a part of the deal last summer that raised the national debt ceiling.

And that’s without the first order of business for the president: a need to raise the debt ceiling another $3 trillion, by some estimates.

“This crash is going to happen at the end of the year, and coming out of a campaign where you’ve had two presidential candidates who’ve spent the whole campaign calling each other names,” Warner said. "The idea that immediately after, everybody’s going to say, ‘Oh gosh, let’s come together and find common ground and fix this’ I think is not a bet that we as a country should take.”

None of that is news. But a bold debt-reduction plan might have more support on Capitol Hill than many think, as some senators, in particular, chafe at the label of a "do nothing" Congress.

“There’s a rank-and-file rebellion brewing here” over the Senate's broad ineffectiveness, said Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina on Wednesday. “Most people come to the Senate, work hard to get here, they’ve done things in their lives of accomplishment, and I think a lot of us are getting tired of sitting around and looking at each other.... Bowles-Simpson, Gang of Six – there’s a good road map to follow if we choose to follow it.”  

On the House side, Democratic whip Steny Hoyer sounded a chord similar to Warner’s in a speech Monday at the left-leaning policy group Third Way.

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